The sun is rising outside, but light is far from being cast on this most curious of general elections. If there is any national trend – and it can barely be argued there is, so eccentric and local are many of these seat-by-seat results – it is that, where the electorate were acutely aware of the marginal status of a trusted incumbent, they came out for them. Where they did not, they registered protest votes: thus, for example, Labour keep Birmingham Edgbaston but lose Kingswood; the Lib Dems, likewise, win Torbay and yet lose Oxford West and Abingdon. The Tories grab a seat like Cannock but miss out on a prime target such as Gedling.
It is the Liberal Democrat under-performance, however, which may well turn out to be most crucial: though the creaking First Past The Post system has vastly under-rewarded them, nor have they capitalised on the huge bounce given to them by Nick Clegg’s performance in the televised Prime Ministerial debates. The final week of the Liberal Democrat campaign was weirdly low key – no big bang, but lots of pleading that a vote for them was not a wasted one. They were consequently caught in a two-party squeeze which now makes it much harder to argue that the Tory momentum has been decisively checked.
So a minority government led by David Cameron, then? Perhaps. But all these weird results – most notably, Labour over-performance in London (Islington South, Tooting, Westminster North – and as I type Hammersmith) – could yet throw up a surprise which prevents it, or makes the argument against it stronger. But Labour have clearly been rejected, and the Liberal Democrats have not taken up the slack. A stable government formed by parties who together have a majority of the popular vote might still be sellable – but not as much as it might have been: a static Liberal Democrat party propping up an unpopular PM leading a discredited Labour party is no sure bet, and the Tories have no love for co-operation. A promise from someone for a swift referendum on PR might help, but the Tories will use their momentum and press friends to reduce the space anyone has to make that argument – and dare the new parliament to vote their narrow minority government do.
The sun has now all but risen, and the game is still on. Just.